When someone who struggles with a mental illness or addiction slips back into unhealthy habits, it is often labeled as a “relapse.” However, where does one say that a relapse is detrimental versus part of the normal recovery process?
If someone eats two extra cookies that were not in her meal plan, is that a relapse? Why, then, is the same word used for the man who eats a whole pie, tub of ice cream, and three bags of chips? Similarly, “relapse” describes when a girl cuts herself once or 100 times.
Clearly, the word “relapse” is thrown around too often in both medical communities and society in general. We must find better language to help so that people understand their own recovery process and can communicate that to loved ones as well as the rest of the world.
In one treatment center, the therapist helped to take away some of this confusion by giving us patients three words to use instead of simply one: lapse, relapse, and collapse.
- Lapse – A lapse is a regular (although distressing) part of recovery which happens fairly often. It is when someone takes a small step backwards but is able to realize that and not let the unhealthy behavior continue. For example, someone who struggled with anorexia might skip a snack but make up the food later in the day or not do that again the next day.
- Relapse – A relapse (in this sense of the definition) is when someone returns to symptoms and continues doing them. However, that person still moves forward in recovery or at least wants to continue moving in a healthier direction. Getting over a relapse takes more care and time but certainly can be done with increased care and changes being made to the person’s current state. An example of this is that someone with depression might start having suicidal thoughts and miss several classes for a week. However, she makes extra counseling appointments and talks with her professors about her current struggle.
- Collapse – A collapse is what we usually think of when the word “relapse” is used in the worst of senses. The person in recovery falls (as the word indicates) and cannot get up without serious help and/or treatment. Hope is certainly still present, but one needs to overcome being immersed in the illness or addiction. For example, a former alcoholic might return completely to drinking and be fired from his job.
Having these distinctions has helped me immensely. I hope that you can find some good use from them as well. When I struggle, using the dreaded word “relapse” is no longer necessary. On the other hand, the word “collapse” shows the gravity of my current state. All of these are also helpful in communicating my current state to others. That way I can understand myself better and aid others in understanding the recovery process.